F355 Challenge Preview

In addition to being a perfect arcade port, the Dreacast version of F355 Challenge will feature five new game modes as well as several other options designed to take advantage of the console's Internet capabilities.

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When Yu Suzuki's F355 Challenge released to US arcades last year, speculation about a Dreamcast port instantly began circulating among gamers. But a lot of questions and doubts were raised when a press release from Acclaim hit the wires last September claiming that the company had won the Ferrari license, and that it would be bringing the arcade hit home to Dreamcast owners later the following year. Why would Acclaim and not Sega publish F355 Challenge for the Dreamcast? Strangely enough, the mysterious press release was immediately pulled from the Web, Acclaim cited an internal error for its publication, and the incident was forgotten.

It should have come as no surprise, then, when Acclaim publicly unveiled a playable version of F355 Challenge for the Dreamcast at this year's E3 in Los Angeles. At first glance, the game seemed like a direct port of the Twin Type arcade cabinet (the more popular DX Type has three monitors running in tandem for a panoramic view), complete with all the same modes, tracks, and, more importantly, the exact graphics. But after Acclaim recently dropped off a copy of the game at the GameSpot offices, we were surprised to find that F355 Challenge for the Dreamcast has even more options and modes of play than either of its arcade predecessors.

Included in the game will be an exact port of the arcade game, without the other two monitors, of course, as well as several additional modes that enhance the original arcade game. Five additional modes of play will ship with the Dreamcast version of F355 Challenge when it is released later this year, as well as several other options designed to take advantage of the console's Internet capabilities. We'll take a detailed look at all these upcoming options in our detailed preview of the game. Let's start with an overview of the car whose name graces the title of the game.

The F355 Challenge

The first car in the Ferrari Challenge series was the 1993 special version of the 348 two-seat road car, aptly named the 348 Challenge. The car was factory-built by Ferrari specifically for race enthusiasts, and it included a number of performance upgrades that ranged from tighter suspension to a beefier exhaust system. In 1995, the Challenge series was expanded to include the F355, which was released in its original street-legal form in the previous year. The F355 wasn't only faster than the 348, but it also handled turns with an air of confidence not found in the uninspiring 348 and addressed the maintenance problems that plagued its poorly designed predecessor. Needless to say, the F355 Challenge car easily outpaced its 348 Challenge counterpart.

In 1998 the performance gap between the two race cars widened even further with the debut of the F1 transmission in all F355 models, including the Challenge. Originally pioneered by Ferrari in 1989 for use with the company's F1 race car, the F1 gearbox replaces the standard clutch-and-stick transmission with a pair of paddle shifters that straddle either side of the steering-wheel column. The transmission is shifted to a higher gear by pulling on the right paddle and downshifted by pulling on the left. Instead of a clutch, the F1 transmission automatically detects when the driver is shifting and electronically cuts off fuel to the engine for one-tenth of a second. This process of shifting is significantly faster than a standard manual transmission, and, as a result, every F1 team has since adopted this technology.

Sega's F355 Challenge arcade cabinet features both a standard transmission (complete with a six-gear gearbox and a working clutch pedal) as well as a pair of F1 paddle shifters. The game was essentially designed to make you a better driver. It features six increasingly challenging tracks, as well as three difficulty settings: novice, intermediate, and professional. The novice setting provides drivers with the best "driving line" to follow on each course, and it gives audio and visual queues for braking, steering, and shifting. At the end of the session, the cabinet dispenses a printout that rates your driving capabilities and points out the mistakes that you made throughout the track. As you become more comfortable with driving the F355 Challenge, you can move on to more challenging modes that take away some of the driving assists and let you drive against the clock as well as up to seven other computer-controlled opponents. Eventually, you can graduate from the tame automatic F355, past the nimble F1 transmission, and all the way to the unruly manual transmission, all while becoming increasingly skilled in the art of closed-circuit racing.

Controlling the Prancing Horse

F355 Challenge the arcade game was certainly less of a game than it was a full-fledged driving simulator. Its steep learning curve and the necessity to use the oft-ignored brake pedal turned off a lot of casual gamers, who had grown accustomed to the likes of San Francisco Rush and Crazy Taxi. The same is true of the upcoming Dreamcast version of F355 Challenge. Unfortunately for the novice, it makes Gran Turismo look like Mario Kart.

The game's most appealing feature is its dead-accurate physics model. Experienced drivers would be hard-pressed to find any game that simulates this level of four-wheel independent physics on any console or PC, save for Sierra's Grand Prix Legends. With over 375 horsepower at its disposal, the F355 is certainly a tough car to drive. That, coupled with the game's minimal sense of speed, can make piloting the car in the game a bit tricky. The lack of any sense of speed has consistently troubled numerous driving-game designers. Sixty miles per hour in a game never seems quite as fast as 60 in your car. Nonetheless, F355 Challenge manages to display a fair sense of speed while maintaining an accurate physics model.

Three assist functions have been built into the game to aid your driving, making it easier to cope with this kind of racing game. Those of you familiar with the arcade version of F355 Challenge will recall that these functions can be turned on and off at will in the intermediate and professional settings. In the Dreamcast version, however, they can't be disengaged. All the better, really, as driving an F355 aggressively without all three would be nearly impossible for all but the most experienced gamer. The functionality of these driver assists is basic, and all three are automatically activated only when the car is about to lose control. They are as follows:

Stability control: This assist almost always activates itself during cornering. It sends more power to the outside wheels to whip the car around turns faster and to keep it from sliding.

Traction control: Traction control engages during a hard launch, and it prevents both rear tires from spinning and needlessly wasting torque. Traction control can shave seconds off a hard acceleration.

Antilock braking: This system rapidly pumps all four of the F355's discs to prevent the car from locking up its brakes during hard deceleration.

More Details

Despite its difficulty level, the basic premise of the game is simple. You take control of a US$160,000 Ferrari F355 F1 Challenge car and learn to master six tracks across three continents. In the arcade mode, each track has two difficulty settings: novice and intermediate. For logistical reasons, the professional mode will be absent from the Dreamcast version of the game. In the arcade, this difficulty setting forces you to drive the car using a manual transmission and clutch without any driver assists. The intermediate mode is essentially the same, but it replaces the manual tranny with the more driver-friendly F1 gearbox, which means that you don't have to worry about the third pedal or the shift knob. Because it's much easier to simulate the effect of a pedal shifter on a Dreamcast controller than on a stick and clutch, Sega left the professional setting out of the arcade mode altogether.

The novice mode not only relieves you of the responsibility of shifting altogether, but it also gives you the option of turning on a fourth driver assist, the Intelligent Brake System (IBS) function of the F355. Although fictitious in the real world, the IBS will basically do the braking for you, leaving you to only deal with steering the car and mashing its accelerator. Because there are three analog functions you'd otherwise have to contend with, the IBS function is a great way to get you accustomed to the car's handling without overwhelming you with too much responsibility.

F355 certainly takes a bit of getting used to. The game's default controller configuration, while logical, can't be changed. The right analog trigger is mapped to the gas while the left is for braking. Upshifting is controlled by the A button, and downshifting with the X. You can steer the car using either the analog pad or the directional pad, and even though the analog steering is initially oversensitive, you might be better off staying away from the digital pad, as it isn't as responsive as you would hope for. Either way, both methods of steering will become second nature to you after a few minutes behind the wheel.

Final Thoughts

F355 Challenge's graphics are easily the nicest we've seen on the Dreamcast and easily better than any racing game released to date. The most impressive aspect about the graphics engine is the sheer amount of detail allowed for each track and its surroundings. None of the six tracks - Motegi, Suzuka, Suzuka short, Monza, Sugo, and Long Beach - have looked nearly as good in any other game as they do in F355 Challenge. Everything from the skyscrapers surrounding the Long Beach track to the amusement park that borders Suzuka is rendered cleanly and with only a minimum amount of sprites. The ground textures, as well as those that skin each car and the outlying areas of the track, are clean, crisp, and they lack any fuzziness whatsoever. Even the Pirelli and Shell logos on the side of your F355 Challenge car are easily recognizable. The sky is also impressive, and, as an added feature, it's randomly generated to display one of a number of different weather patterns that range from cloudless days to gray and stormy horizons.

Like the graphics, the sound and music are a carbon copy of the arcade's. The engine noise is loud, but certainly not annoying, and it reverberates with the same F355 growl that manages to be throaty and hollow at the same time. The game's music can best be described as a mix of '80s Van Halen-like pop-metal with English-language J-pop. It might seem a bit campy to some, but for what's it worth, we noticed a small improvement in our lap times with the music on. Go figure. Regardless, these tunes can be turned on and off on the fly to suit your mood.

Even though the version we have is still incomplete, it's plain to see that this will be a worthy follow-up to and a perfect translation of last year's arcade game. It's then interesting to find several new options in the Dreamcast F355 Challenge that weren't available in the arcade version. While they aren't currently in playable form, we were able to learn from Acclaim how these new modes would function. In its final form, F355 Challenge will come with six modes play: arcade, championship, single play, versus play, cable versus play, and network play. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory. The arcade mode was detailed in this preview, and it is essentially an exact port of the arcade game. Championship mode will let you advance to a new track only when you've successfully completed an earlier circuit. Single play will be similar to the arcade mode, but without any of the time restrictions. Versus play, which is currently playable, is a split-screen mode wherein you and a friend race head-to-head on the same screen. Surprisingly, this mode retains the frame rate and visual splendor of the single-player mode. Cable play, like versus play, allows you to compete against a friend, but requires a second Dreamcast and television. The two Dreamcasts can be hooked up together using a serial cable, which is scheduled for release later this year. Finally, network play lets you download other players' lap times from the Internet and see if you can best their scores.

Other options include the ability to tweak the settings on your car and have your driving data uploaded to Sega's online network. Instead of having your data printed out on a piece of paper like in the arcade version, you'll be able to post your results online in a Sega-sponsored Internet ranking ladder. If this early build is any indication, then F355 Challenge will easily give the Dreamcast the additional muscle it needs to counter the PlayStation 2's launch this October. With graphics that rival any game on any platform to date and with gameplay refined by one of Japan's most popular designers, F355 Challenge is certainly one to watch out for.

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